AMERICAN MUSICFOR PERCUSSION
Volumes 1 and 2
New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble
Frank Epstein, conductor
Frank Epstein is best known to most local concertgoers as a longstanding percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position from which he retired in 2011 after 43 years. But Epstein has also been an active participant in the city’s new music scene, founding and directing both Collage New Music and New England Conservatory’s Percussion Ensemble. It’s in that last role that he oversaw the commissioning of many new works specifically for percussion ensemble, aiming both to provide his students with fresh challenges, and, over the long term, to expand the percussion repertoire itself.
That he has done so impressively is now documented in “American Music for Percussion,” a two-volume Naxos release that deserved a spot in last year’s roundups of notable discs. The composers commissioned included Elliott Carter, Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Joan Tower, Peter Child, Jennifer Higdon, Fred Lerdahl, and Robert Xavier Rodriguez. The pieces range enormously in length and instrumentation, and in the sound worlds they inhabit — from the festive folk-tinged journey of Rodriguez’s “El Día de los Muertos,” to the splashy exuberance of Higdon’s “Splendid Wood” (for three marimbas), to the pristine complexities of Carter’s “Tintinnabulation” (completed at age 99). The performances, almost all of them led by Epstein himself, are exacting and high-caliber.
Many of the composers represented here seemed to treat the rare assignment of writing for percussion ensemble as license to think both boldly and playfully. On the process of writing his “Grand Concerto,” Schuller comments in the liner notes: “I felt like a little four-year-old splashing wildly around in a big bathtub with dozens of plastic or rubber toys.” His challenging work, clocking in at 25 minutes, requires nine percussionists and a dense tangle of instruments. It’s a formidable piece, and a significant addition to his body of work. But its high spirits also shine through, as the learned technique of a veteran composer is put to the service of celebrating the complexity of rhythm, the architecture of noise.
THE CHOPIN CONCERTOS
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Andris Nelsons, conductor
For all that his orchestration has never been accorded much respect, Chopin’s two piano concertos are masterpieces of light and shadow, passion and poetry, finesse and fire. They also give the soloist ample opportunity for individual expression. Daniel Barenboim avails himself of that opportunity in these live performances with conductor Andris Nelsons and the Staatskapelle Berlin from July 2010, and the results, as is so often the case with Barenboim, are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.
There’s no end of beautiful, intelligent, imaginative playing here. Time and again, Barenboim takes a phrase and makes you hear it differently, like the militant second-subject climax of the E-minor concerto’s Maestoso first movement, which in his hands strikes a note of wistful regret. His overall concept is boisterous and muscular, with in-your-face passagework and an emphatic bass; yet in the slow movements there’s no want of discursive reflection. Nelsons and the orchestra provide rugged, full-bodied support.
What I don’t hear is a feel for Chopin’s idiom. Too often Barenboim sounds as if he were banging out Beethoven. His idea of dance rhythms is literal and static (the mazurka finale of the F-minor concerto is a stompfest in hob-nailed boots), and when he does stop to think, he can be fussy and self-conscious. He’ll plunge forward and abruptly pull back; there’s no long line. And his instrument has an unpleasantly metallic tone. Nelsons’s accompaniment also lacks subtlety, and at the end of the E-minor’s Romance second movement he swamps his soloist. Barenboim fans will enjoy these performances; I did, but only fitfully.